Found a CityBee rental parked alongside Polocko Street. Unlocked the car with my phone and found the key inside- unreal. Picked up Regina from her home at 9:00 and began the drive to Seirijai, located near the border with Poland and within the boundaries of Meteliai Regional Park.
En route we found ourselves in the ancient city of Merkine, located at the confluence of the Merkys and Neman Rivers.
Of great importance during the early history of the Grand Duchy, all that remains of the wooden castle is the imposing mound on which it stood.
We arrived in Seirijai just before noon.
Sarah Snider nee Avner (grandmother of my grandfather) was born there in 1879- the youngest of ten children. In 1897 she immigrated to Rochester and in 1898 she married Hyman Snider. There is a picture of her holding my mother.
Her father was Ari Leib Avner, born to Isaac Avner of Suwalki and Tamara Ivry of Seirijai. A talmudic scholar, Ari Leib lived in Seirijai until 1915 when he was expelled to Mogilev Gubernya in modern-day Belarus. Many Litvaks suffered a similar fate, as bigotry dictated that they’d collaborate with the encroaching German army.
Surrounding the bus-stop stood a colorful park filled with ornate wooden sculptures, funded presumably by the municipality.
One sculpture commemorated the 1000 year anniversary of Lithuania, a reference to her first mention in the Annals of Quedlinburg (1009), which describes a German evangelist (Saint Bruno) murdered by Lithuanian pagans.
Another sculpture honored the 500 year anniversary of Seirijai.
We immediately made our way to the Jewish cemetery.
I was so accustomed to finding emaciated cemeteries, destroyed by Nazis and decayed by time, that I was shocked to find an abundance of headstones in a relatively well-groomed plot.
The vast majority of stones occupied the front half, perhaps 300 or so. The sparsely occupied back portion was likely scavenged by the Christian community for repurpose in their adjacent cemetery during Soviet times- why would Jews ever return to Lithuania?
Further differentiating the cemetery from others was the relatively visible organization of stones, which allowed us transcribe them in an orderly fashion.
We started in the corner nearest the entrance and made our way to the opposite end.
The size, date, and condition of stones varied immensely.
I was continuously amazed by Regina’s ability to decipher inscriptions, exposed to the elements sometimes for centuries.
I occasionally lifted stones, sometimes to find the letters imprinted on the soft earth.
At the end of Row A there was a spectacular view of the city.
After transcribing Row B in the opposite direction, we headed to city center hungry and frigid for tea and chocolate.
We then drove to the site of the former synagogue. All that remains is the foundation.
Per usual, the cathedral stood in close proximity to the synagogue.
We returned to the cemetery just before 3:00 to resume our work. Midway through Row C I pulled back a thin, tilted stone, that we might have otherwise ignored. Regina read the following :
…האשה מרת–דבורה בת ר–דוב אשת ר–ליב זעלוורסקי
I thought the name sounded familiar so I pulled out my handy-dandy iPhone to find my tree. I asked Regina if she could decipher a death year, and I will never forget the moment she said 1875. It was exactly what I wanted to hear. Deborah Zelversky was a sister to Tamara nee Ivry. She is my great-great-great-great-great-aunt. It was the first tangible testament to my heritage in the old country. It was an out of body experience.
Deborah was the third of six children, born to David Ivry in 1804. Her son married Tamara’s daughter (first-cousins, indeed) and their grandson was Sir Leon Simon– author of the Balfour Declaration.
With a newfound energy we decided to forgo our second intended shtetl stop and instead dedicate our day to deciphering headstones.
Although we didn’t find anymore relatives, we found a stone dating from 1806 when Seirijai was still occupied by Prussia, a year before she was occupied by France.
The first few rows contained about 5o stones each, about 40 legible each. In total we transcribed 7 rows, maybe 200 stones in total.
With that, we collected four bags of apples and made our way back to Vilnius.